Humbert then drives off, and, out of sheer rebellion, speeds down the wrong side of the road. He gets arrested after running a red light and driving into a meadow. Humbert realizes that the real tragedy is not that he has lost Lolita, but that Lolita has been robbed of her childhood. From jail, Humbert writes that he opposes capital punishment but would sentence himself to thirty-five years for rape and dismiss the rest of the charges. He addresses the last section to Lolita, telling her to be true to her husband Dick and advising her not to talk to strangers. He also asks her not to mourn Quilty, as he felt that killing Quilty was a public service. He also states that, if given a choice between Quilty and Humbert, Humbert should live, so he might chronicle this story and immortalize Lolita through his art.
As Humbert winds down his presentation to the jury of his readers, the question of appropriate punishment—the inevitable conclusion to any criminal trial—must be addressed. Humbert explicitly raises the issue of his own punishment twice in this section, first in Chapter 31 and then again in Chapter 36. In Chapter 31, Humbert suggests that no legal punishment could possibly prove sufficient and appropriate for his crimes. He will personally, however, suffer eternally under the knowledge that he is ultimately responsible for the loss of Lolita’s childhood. In Chapter 36, Humbert recommends that he be sentenced to thirty-five years in jail for his crimes, though he can’t advocate the death penalty, being morally opposed to capital punishment. The novel itself refuses to offer any closure on the subject of Humbert’s punishment. We never see Humbert tried in a literal courtroom, since, as we learn from the foreword to Lolita, Humbert dies in jail before reaching trial. The novel arrests itself at the stage of judgment, leaving the task of appraising Humbert’s guilt and determining his sentence in our hands.
At the end of the novel, Humbert stops presenting his case to us, the jury, and instead addresses his victim directly. Humbert doesn’t plead for Lolita’s forgiveness, but he does attempt to make peace with her. He tells her that he is “thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” Here, Humbert alludes to several figures from art history, from the aurochs, or bison, of ancient cave paintings to the religious iconography of the Old Masters, rendered in their “durable pigments.” Like the “prophetic sonnets” of William Shakespeare—in which Shakespeare predicted that his poems would life forever and that the sweetheart described within them would likewise be immortalized—Humbert offers his work of art as a present and penance to his darling. Humbert and Lolita share the “immortality” of Lolita, becauseas long as the novel exists, there will be a record that preserves their time together. Though Humbert (and Nabokov) couldn’t have known this at the time, Lolita has also become a canonic masterpiece of western literature, thereby granting it another level of immortality.
However, the question of whether Humbert’s artistic talent can mitigate his moral guilt remains an open one. Humbert believes that the true depravity of his crime lies in his wanton destruction of a beautiful thing—Lolita. If he manages to recapture that lost beauty in another beautiful creation, the novel Lolita, can we somehow forgive the corrupt criminal Humbert? When Charlotte dies, Humbert denies any culpability in the matter, claiming that “poets never kill.” However, as Chapter 35 demonstrates, poets do indeed kill. Humbert even composes an ode in honor of Quilty’s murder, which he recites just before shooting him.
In the final lines of Chapter 36, Humbert speaks of “the refuge of art,” and we may ask ourselves whether Humbert is indeed attempting to take shelter within his beautiful, mazelike creation, hiding his sinfulness within elegant prose. The novel ends with the word Lolita, which, quite famously, opens the novel as well. By bracketing the novel with such an explicit instance of symmetry, Nabokov draws attention to the novel’s formal, literary qualities. Lolita doesn’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, but a planned, controlled, composed account of a deeply disturbing series of events. It may seem inappropriate, then, to respond to Lolita emotionally, even though Humbert’s agony often seems genuine and heartbreaking. However we react to the ending of Humbert’s tale—whether we forgive Humbert because of the obvious pain he has suffered, or because he has created an exquisite work of art, or whether we continue to hold him accountable for the incredible damage he has caused—Lolita forces us to interrogate the moral aspects of art appreciation.